What Can We Steal From Lorrie Moore’s “Referential”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Referential,” short story
Author: Lorrie Moore
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.  Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor selected the story to appear in Best American Short Stories 2013.

Bonuses:  Here is an interview Ms. Moore did with The Paris Review.  Here‘s a brief New Yorker interview in which Ms. Moore discusses “Referential.”  Here is what Karen Carlson thought about the story.  Here is another interesting discussion about the piece.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration

The female protagonist is a widower whose sixteen-year-old son has some mental health problems.  He cuts himself and has been institutionalized.  Her boyfriend Pete has been around for a decade, but he’s now as far away from the narrator as the son is.  She and Pete visit the son, whose problems only seem worse when added to customary teenage rebellion.  During a quiet scene in her home, she and Pete talk around their problems until she fibs: “Someone is phoning here from your apartment.”  Pete hightails it, confirming that his affection is alienated.  The story ends with another phone call; “she” answers the phone, but no one answers her.

This might be a fairly short story because of its genesis.  Ms. Moore borrowed some of the tone and ideas from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.”  Both pieces are brief and both deal with a couple whose relationship is under stress and with mental illness.  Mr. Nabokov and Ms. Moore both end their stories with ringing phones.  Ms. Moore certainly didn’t “steal” in an improper manner, of course.  She simply thought of “Signs and Symbols” and allowed her muse to dictate a new story while Mr. Nabokov’s work was rattling around in her head.

When Henry Ford built his first cars, he had the automobiles of others in mind as he scribbled down designs.  The makers of the first automobiles thought about horse-drawn carriages.  The makers of horse-drawn carriages thought about more primitive wheeled vehicles.  The point is that we’re all influence by those who came before us.  Why follow Ms. Moore’s example with a public domain story that may have slipped out of regular readership?

We’ve all read “Young Goodman Brown.”  Mr. Hawthorne wrote a lot of other short stories that were popular in his time.  Why not make a cup of tea, curl up with one of his lesser-known works and see what comes to mind?

I love the 1001 Nights.  (You should, too.)  These stories are very much in the public domain; what would happen if you adapt one of the tales into a modern setting?  What does your muse say about the very different ways in which contemporary people solve their romantic problems?

You probably know who Vladimir Nabokov was.  What about the writers whose work is no longer given a great deal of critical attention.  Read the stories and poems in an ancient issue of The Atlantic Monthly and see what you come up with.  If nothing else, you’ll likely be the only person in the world who has interacted with T.R. Sullivan’s “The Whirligig of Fortune.”  And check it out!  Sullivan stole his ending from one of our favorite writers!  (Do you know which one?)


Ms. Moore has a LOT of exposition that she needs to dump in the first couple pages of the story.  If we don’t understand the protagonist’s relationship with Pete, we won’t care about the end of the story.  If we don’t understand the struggles she has had with her son, we won’t feel the full weight of her situation.  What are some of the techniques Ms. Moore employs?

  • A provocative first sentence:

For the third time in three years,

Uh oh…that’s a problem unless we’re talking about winning the lottery.


Okay, there are multiple characters in this undesirable situation.

talked about what would be a suitable birthday present

The characters must be fairly close; how often have you asked a cabbie what kind of present you should get your significant other?

for her

Okay, exclusion by pronoun.  I’ll point out more about this in a moment.

deranged son.

Aaaaand there we go.  The son has some kind of serious mental health problem.

  • Efficient use of pronouns.  Ms. Moore indicates the boy’s parentage with the simple use of an unlikely pronoun.  It’s “her” deranged son, not “theirs.”  A lesser writer (such as myself) may have wasted a whole sentence on this bit of exposition.
  • Condensing the basics into description.  We need to know how old the kid is.  An eighteen-year-old in a mental institution carries far different connotations from a five-year-old in the same place.  We also want to know how long Pete (the “not the father”) has been around.  In the second paragraph, Ms. Moore gives us all of this information in one sentence.
  • A pushy narrator.  Instead of beating around the bush, Ms. Moore simply has her narrator tell you why Pete hasn’t committed to the protagonist:

(He did not blame her son - or did he?)

Employing these and other techniques is particularly important when you’re writing a story as short as “Referential.”  Very short stories are harder to write because EVERY LITTLE ELEMENT MUST BE PERFECT.  On the other hand, this efficiency makes the story that much more beautiful.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make a conscious effort to gain inspiration from a classic or forgotten work.  Reach outside your comfort zone or familiar bookshelves for new literary soil to till.
  • Condense your exposition bombs in as many ways as you can manage.  We want to spend more time watching your characters interact and less time learning the basics about them.



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